Groot Constantia, a sense of place

Wine aficionados talk of terroir, a French term that simply means ‘a sense of place’. I am on the other end of a Zoom meeting with Floricius Beukes, the Viticulturist of Groot Constantia, to discover Groot Constantia’s ‘sense of place’ but in my mind, I find myself walking through vineyards, beneath ancient oak trees and beside historic Cape Dutch buildings. And of course, sipping on the deliciousness of Groot Constantia wine. I reluctantly drag myself back to reality as Floricius begins to tell me his story.

Groot Constantia

He is a fifth-generation German, ‘who can’t speak a word of German’, but whose roots are as firmly planted in the Groot Constantia landscape as the vines he nurtures. Having developed his passion in the wine growing area of Sancerre in the eastern part of the Loire valley, France, he started at Klein Constantia in 2003 as assistant winemaker, but his love for the vines and the earth in which they grow saw him move out of the cellar to take over viticulture and management of the vineyards two years later, before moving to Groot Constantia in 2011. 

Groot Constantia

Groot Constantia is South Africa’s oldest wine-producing farm with a history that dates to 1685. It was first owned by Governor Simon van der Stel, and it was his love of wine that led to him purchasing the 891 morgen of land on the slopes of Table Mountain and planting vines that formed the origins of the commercial South African wine industry. So renowned where Groot Constantia’s wines in Europe that they were enjoyed by Emperors and Kings such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Louis Phillipe (King of the French), and even appeared in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as a cure for a broken heart. Even Napoleon Bonaparte – former emperor of France, became partial to the wines of Constantia while in exile on the island of St Helena from 1815 until 1821, ‘to the point of desiring nothing else on his deathbed’.

Floricius (aka Flo) begins by explaining the unique environment of Groot Constantia, its location on the slopes of Table Mountain, and the two very different soil types that dominate the farm – the granite which produces powerful, concentrated wine, and sandstone which yields floral, aromatic wine. The shadow of the mountain which dulls the worst of the summer heat, the cooling sea breezes and the higher-than-average rainfall and the fog from the ocean that provides moisture for the vines all play a part in the final product.

All this is important he tells me, but the soil is ‘where my heart is’. He’s done the high-tech thing, with soil probes, continuous loggers, digital leaf analysis and much more, but the best way he says is to walk or quadbike through the vineyards, ‘this way you will realise that the plants talk to you, and you will know when they are unhappy’. And much of this unhappiness comes from the soil they are growing in. “When the soil is happier the vines will be happier, when there is more life in the soil the plant will grow stronger and have more foliage, which makes it easier when it comes to breaking out the side shoots”.

Flo explains that the 200-300mm layer of topsoil is most important – it’s where the fine roots of the vine are, where the minerals and flavour come from. It’s what needs protection from the heavy winter rains. To combat this, cover crops are planted between the vines and rainfall runoff is quickly directed into gutters which lead into riverbeds and then into the dams. This dam water is used for post-harvest irrigation and for the young vines – established vines are generally left to nature unless the vines are unhappy.

Sometimes the topsoil has already been washed away and the only thing to do is to nurse it back to health by adding natural biomass. This is primarily done by using the cover crop to generate organic matter. Flo found that the traditional cover crop was not adequate so with much research and experimentation he found that a mixture of lupins, felicias, canola and rye worked well, with a recent addition being radish. Not the regular salad radish that we are familiar with, which would have encouraged the baboons to visit, but a white bitter variety that grows much larger. The added benefit with this was that as it grows, the radish helps to aerate the soil, which in turn brings earthworms. One the growing period is over; the mixed cover crop just gets rolled flat so that it can decompose and nourish the soil. The farm also makes its own compost from vine and garden cuttings, grape skins and pips, alien vegetation removal with horse manure and hay added – as there isn’t sufficient to use on the whole farm it is only used to nourish struggling plants.

When it comes to pruning the ‘mass’ is cut off and then he ‘sends in the ladies’ – they are much slower he tells me but are far more accurate. It’s hard on the hands so electric shears are being introduced, which is costly but in the long run, more productive. To make the working environment more pleasant, mobile toilets with wash basins are provided for their comfort. Continued education is important, so the ladies have all been on pruning courses, as well as health and safety courses. “We ask our staff what they want to do, and we empower them to be able to do it”. I ask about staff turnover; Flo laughs, “we get very old here”. This indicates job satisfaction, and job satisfaction comes when staff members are valued, and their needs are taken care of. “We want them to be happy and want them to live in a good environment”. Clearly community matters at Groot Constantia.

Working the land at Groot Constantia - pic credit Dawn Jorgensen

Alien vegetation elimination is an ongoing process, particularly Black Wattle (Acacia aulacocarpa), Port Jackson (Acacia saligna) and Rooikranz (Acacia cyclops). Indigenous local seeds are purchased from Kirstenbosch and are sown wherever possible. By restoring the natural indigenous vegetation, they have seen a return in local wildlife, such as porcupine and even caracal, as is evident on camera traps. About four years ago a caracal mom and her cubs were spotted near the entrance gate and that vineyard block is now called rooikat – the Afrikaans name for caracal.

In line with Groot Constantia’s ethos of doing things the natural way, wherever possible, pest control is done biologically. Flo explains that one of the biggest problems are the leaf-roll group of viruses which effect the respiration of the leaves. Mealybugs, which spread these viruses, are dealt with biologically by bringing in natural predators such as ladybirds to eat the mealybugs and the Anagyrus wasp (which looks like a fly) which drills a hole into the mealybug, lays its eggs and then as the eggs hatch, eat the mealybug. Not to be outdone, the mealybug releases a sweet honeydew, which attracts ants, who in turn protect the mealybugs from the wasps. Traditionally the ants were dealt with using bait, but this kills bees as well, so another plan needed to be made. Working closely with Real IPM, a more friendly and soft solutions on the environment was found to address the ants.

Ladybug

Another ‘pest’ that needed to be dealt with were the Egyptian geese, who relish the cover crop planted between the vines. The answer to this to bring in a falconer periodically which chases them away. Owls, buzzards, and other birds of prey are encouraged to deal with rodents and the installation of an electric fence has managed to keep about 95% of the local baboon population out. The problem with the baboons is that they cause damage to the vines when they tear the branches thereby destroying the potential of the following year’s buds.

Water saving is also high on the agenda at Groot Constantia and wherever possible measures are taken to reduce usage. This has been achieved using water saving devices on pipes, the continual maintenance of taps and an internal water awareness campaign for staff around water conservation. The cellars are no longer washed using hosepipes but rather by bucket and this cellar waste is fed into artificial wetlands specifically created for this purpose.

As one would expect, our conversation soon veers back to soil and its importance in the creation of an exceptional wine. He tells me about their award-winning harvests – in 2015 they won ‘Best Chardonnay in the World’ with their 2013 vintage, and in 2020, ‘Best in the World’ with their 2019 Sauvignon Blanc vintage. So, what makes for a really great wine, I ask him.  Flo smiles and says, “good soil makes for great wine. We work hard with what nature gives us and give the vineyard what it needs”.

Wine tasting at Groot Constantia

Having experienced a cellar tour and had the pleasure of a wine-tasting I understand the truth in this. I now know the love that goes into each bottle and understand that the terroir of Groot Constantia goes way beyond its sense of place, it is its history, heritage, conservation, and community all wrapped up in a beautiful glass bottle.    

For more information visit www.grootconstantia.co.za or connect with Groot Constantia via social media on Facebook and Instagram @GrootConstantia.

Read the article in the digital mag HERE

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